The late 20th-century novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Das Parfum. Die Geschichte eines Mörders) by Patrick Süskind (1949– ) is probably the best-known German literary text to appear in the last half of the century. It is a complex multilayered postmodern tale exhibiting features of many genres— at least partially alluded to in the seeming discrepancy between title and subtitle. Primarily, it is a detective fantasy set in 18th-century France, but it has also been interpreted as a critique of enlightenment attitudes, a (mock) historical novel, a bildungsroman, specifically a Künstlerroman, and it certainly is a pastiche with sheer infinite intertexts and allusions to cultural, artistic, scientific, and literary facts and events.
Perfume is the product of great originality, imagination, and wide reading—but equally of careful historical research and the author’s own personal experience in France. The novel, whose release coincided in popular culture with the (re)discovery of the body and a new sensuality (wellness, aromatherapy, etc.) and in the staid world of German literature with the urgent need for “a good read,” hit a nerve both with readers and critics. Frank Degler, author of one of numerous academic studies that have since appeared regarding Perfume, points out that the “aesthetic reduction”—Süskind’s single-minded focus on the hitherto underrated sensory mode of olfaction—led to a new “aesthetic seduction,” an element largely absent from much of German literary production during the late 1970s and early 1980s. But the privileging of one mode of perception, a feature observable in much of Süskind’s work, forms only one of several structures of fascination that grab the reader almost physically: disgust, human depravity, criminality, perverted erotics, but also the novel issue of olfactory aesthetics, the impressive and easily communicated knowledge of perfumery, and the quick sociohistorical sketches of the city of Paris.
While unique and uniquely potent in their mixture, not all these ingredients of Perfume were exclusively the product of Süskind’s fertile mind. Roald Dahl’s 1960’s short story “Bitch,” for example, unmistakably prefigures the basic plot structure of Perfume, and Alain Corbin’s Le miasme et la jonquille (published in French in 1982, but easily accessible to the German author), a scholarly study on olfaction and social imagination, conveniently provided Süskind with the olfactive-historical detail so crucial for the liveliness and often disgusting sensuousness of his Paris descriptions and Grenouille’s, his main character’s, activities. The crowd scenes at Grasse and the pack in Paris closely follow the models Elias Canetti devised for masses, and innumerable literary allusions, notably biblical, provide narrative coordinates and support the plot grid.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is, like many Süskind figures, socially and psychologically marginalized. As an abandoned child, he was slow to speak, but discovered early on his one great talent, the olfactory equivalent of perfect pitch, combined with absolute olfactory memory. Smells are his only interest and passion. His harsh upbringing included work for a tanner in hideous and unhealthy conditions, but as he became older he strolled about Paris, gaining a detailed olfactory map of the city. Once, when ordered to take goat hides to Baldini, a perfumer with a declining business and flagging creative powers, Grenouille seizes like a tick—a simile often invoked for him—his chance of coming closer to fulfilling his dream of one day creating the ultimate perfume that would inspire love in everyone. He knows what this would be, since he discovered it one night emanating from an adolescent girl in a little courtyard. He was attracted from afar by the barest scent trail escaping from her, and when he kills her and smells her empty, the principle of her scent orders his whole interior olfactory world. Thanks to Grenouille’s indefatigable creativity, Baldini’s perfumery, where he soon starts to work, gains European prominence, but after learning from Baldini as much as he can, Grenouille leaves Paris for Grasse to broaden his perfumer’s techniques there.
The journey to Grasse takes seven years, as it is interrupted by a solitary sojourn in one of the most remote and atmospherically pure areas of France, virtually empty of human beings. There, living primitively in a cave, Grenouille gives himself over to exquisite, imaginative, olfactory orgies until he discovers one day to his great horror that he himself is odorless. This discovery sends him back into civilization, first into the hands of an enlightened aristocrat whose hobbyhorse is a theory of lethal gases allegedly emanating from everything terrestrial. Grenouille serves as his object of demonstration before a scholarly audience, but quickly escapes to Grasse, where he takes a job with a perfumer. He acquires knowledge of the more sophisticated techniques of scent production, makes his own experiments, and embarks on a series of murders of young women whom he kills for the sole purpose of obtaining their body odors—ingredients for his ultimate scent. Twenty-four victims already mark the murderer’s trail, spreading fear and horror in the hearts of the whole population.
Laure Richis, the daughter of the richest citizen in town, is the last victim, the one reminding Grenouille most of the highest principles in scents that he had experienced for the first time in Paris. Her murder finally leads to Grenouille’s arrest and death sentence. The execution, however, cannot be carried out because Grenouille, stepping out on the scaffold and wearing just a drop of his essence of woman, inspires such love, desire, and concupiscence in the thousands of spectators that the scheduled beheading degenerates into a mass orgy. This is Grenouille’s moment of supreme power—and of disgust at the easy olfactory gullibility of ordinary humans. He leaves Grasse and heads back to Paris, where he sprinkles the rest of his perfume all over himself and is killed and cannibalized by a group of criminals in a kind of suicide by proxy.
This dark tale around a grotesque main character, whom the narrator treats rather haughtily, is set at a far enough historical remove from late 20th-century readers to get them to accept as part of their suspension of disbelief all kinds of unsavory, unpleasant, and disgusting sites and sights in the fictional world they are entering; they will in fact enjoy them from their safe contemporary perches of pleasantly scented cleanliness. On the other hand, readers are mercilessly exposed, almost invaded, by the vividly invoked world of smells and stenches, its incorporeal yet all-permeating nature, and the accompanying feelings of revulsion that are much harder to keep at a comfortable distance. Süskind is a master in the use of disgust, of both the lure and the loathing of that effect that he so vividly and innovatively invokes through olfactory perception but that is part and parcel of the horror genre, not lastly in film. This ambivalence, not merely narrative but almost physiological, constitutes the real fascination of his text, which has justly come to be recognized as one of the most intriguing pieces of literature of the past quarter century. Perfume shows Süskind as the great linguistic stylist that he is, a talent in evidence throughout his work to date, but used here specifically to create an atmosphere of colloquial, relaxed, almost offhanded storytelling—the deceptively smooth and reader-friendly surface of the novel.
It will be interesting to observe how a future film version of Perfume, if it attempts atmospherically to stay anywhere close to the book, takes up the challenge of representing the olfactory mode, a difficult modality to represent in any artistic medium due to its poor semiotic encoding, but so brilliantly achieved through invoking disgust and its invasive, contagious, underyour-skin characteristics in Perfume.
Burr, Chandler. The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. New York: Random House, 2002.
Classen, Constance. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Corbin, Alain. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Degler, Frank. Aisthetische Reduktionen: Analyse zu Patrick Süskinds “Der Kontrabaß,” “Das Parfum,” und “Rossini.” Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2003.